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How LeBron James got Hugh Martin through the Iraq War

gl_kai_final Image courtesy of In his featured Grantland essay, BOA author Hugh Martin (The Stick Soldiers, 2013) recalls playing high school basketball with LeBron James, getting dunked on by his then-14-year-old Ohio league rival, and "how the NBA superstar helped get him through the Iraq War." In great detail, Martin recounts the shaping experience of getting dunked on by LeBron: "I ran beside him, waiting to swing my hand at his next bounce, but I struggled to keep pace, moving my feet as quickly as possible next to his long, rhythmic strides. After three dribbles he jumped off one leg and I reached to grab his arm, to foul him, but he kept going. Higher. With his right hand, he cocked the ball back and catapulted it through the hoop. The ball bounced hard once off the gym floor and I caught it on the way up, stepped out of bounds, and threw it in to our guard, who looked right at me. 'Shit,' was all he said." As he shares later stories of his war encounters, Martin cites how these connections to LeBron followed him to Iraq and back again: "LeBron and the Cavs represented life in a place where I wanted to return. It wasn’t just his genius as a player. LeBron meant all those things I longed for and thought about incessantly as a 20-year-old in Iraq: boyhood, sports, community, Akron, Cleveland, Ohio in general ... In Iraq, following LeBron helped me keep those parts of myself — athlete, civilian, Ohioan — alive as I lived this other, temporary life as a soldier." Published by BOA in April 2013, Martin's Poulin Prize-winning collection The Stick Soldiers recounts his time in basic training, his preparation for Iraq, his experience withdrawing from school, and ultimately, the final journey to Iraq and back home to Ohio. After deployment, Martin still circles back to his high school basketball days, to a time when LeBron was just a rival with splayed feet and hard-to-spell name, and when Martin had no foreseeable future as an Iraqi War veteran. "On that court, LeBron is not the King yet; he’s just my man. I’m not a soldier, not a veteran, not someone who has known war intimately. September 11 hasn’t happened. Many of the future soldiers are living their childhoods and don’t know they will die in Mesopotamia — a place they might’ve studied in school. The civilians who will die in these wars are still alive. Some are yet to be born ... When I see LeBron now, he is a symbol and a reminder of who I was before Iraq." Click here to read Martin's entire Grantland essay, "Cheering LeBron in Jalula." To purchase The Stick Soldiers, visit us at the BOA Bookstore.
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